Domestic cracks in blanket US support for Israel

Palestine no longer anathema, but there’s still ways to go
A child holds up a sign that reads ‘Palestinian Freedom’ as pro-Palestine protestors rally outside The Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas, US, May 15, 2021. Photo: AFP

"No child, Palestinian or Israeli, whoever they are, should ever have to worry that death will rain from the sky. How many of my colleagues are willing to say the same, to stand for Palestinian human rights as they do for Israeli? How many Palestinians have to die for their lives to matter?"

— Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Democrat of Michigan, in a speech in the US House of Representatives condemning pro-Israel bias in the US. Tlaib is the first Palestinian American member of the US Congress.

The world heaved a collective sigh of relief after a ceasefire in the horrendous Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though who knows how long it will last.

In the US, the hostilities have revealed signs of change.

Unequivocal bipartisan support for Israel, come hell or high water, is being questioned. US President Joe Biden has been taken to task by progressive Democrats. Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, whose grandmother is in Gaza, made an impassioned plea to Biden during a brief meeting.

The times, they are a-changing.

There was a time when the US media—and popular opinion—refused to even acknowledge the existence of Palestinian nationhood.

Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir had once infamously said that there were no Palestinians. US supporters of Israel, who tend to regard the conflict as a zero-sum game, agreed. For many decades, the term "Palestinian" was rarer than hen's teeth in US media.

As late as the 1960s, the US mainstream media promoted the notion that Israel was the only shining democracy in a neighbourhood of thuggish Arab nations.

Yes, Israel was democratic. So was erstwhile apartheid South Africa. (Perhaps not coincidentally, both nations were great chums.)

The anti-Palestinian animus was exacerbated by the Cold War. The most radical supporters of Palestinians were hardline pro-Soviet Arab states like Syria, Iraq and Algeria.

The thaw began with the 1978 Camp David accords between Egypt's Anwar Sadat and Israel's Menachem Begin, negotiated by US President Jimmy Carter. The word "Palestinian" began to pop up in the US media.

Even as late as 2007, I vividly recall how Carter was essentially blacklisted by the media when he went on a book-promotion tour for his book "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" (2006). Never mind that the book went on to become a New York Times bestseller.

The response this time around is different. Public radio network NPR provided detailed reports on the grossly disproportionate damage and human suffering in the Gaza strip.

New York City, arguably the US media capital, has a heavy Jewish influence. The New York Times, in addition to in-depth reporting, has carried guest essays by Palestinian American writers. Emmy and Peabody award-winning journalist Laila Al-Arian wrote about the heartbreaking story of her grandfather Abdul Kareem in "My Grandfather Bought a Home in Gaza With His Savings. An Israeli Airstrike Destroyed It." Writer-scholar Youssef Munayyer provided an incisive analysis in "This Moment is Different."

The newspaper has also published sympathetic guest essays by mainstream Jewish Americans like Vermont's Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders ("The US Must Stop Being an Apologist for the Netanyahu Government") and Jewish Currents editor Peter Beinart ("Palestinian Refugees Deserve to Return Home. Jews Should Understand.")

A profound, broader shift in the mood in the Democratic Party appears to be driven by two factors. 

The Black Lives Matter movement continues a long tradition of minority rights activists feeling an instinctive kinship with international freedom struggles. In 1967 boxer activist Muhammad Ali gave up his boxing license for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.  Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. who considered the war an imperialist project, praised him.

Especially since its early days of inception dominated by European Ashkenazi Jews, Israel and the US had a disturbing unspoken historical similarity rarely spelled out by its supporters—both nations felt a deep need to create a triumphant historical narrative whose validity depended on the denial of the humanity of the people it sought to displace. Ethnic minorities, many directly at the receiving end of colonial oppression and/or horrendous racial discrimination, instinctively see through the pious humbug that seeks to obscure the less salubrious reality of oppression and dispossession.

This time around, engaged progressive movements like Black Lives Matter and the demand to address global warming, powered by a progressive, younger cohort, has gained more traction and is beginning to make electoral inroads.

Another factor is the growing rightward shift of Israeli politics and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's frankly partisan embrace of former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party.

All told, young people are driving this change, and even the Jewish community is affected.

"A Pew survey last year found that fewer than one-third of young Jews in the United States rated Netanyahu as good or excellent, and barely one-quarter strongly opposed the BDS movement to boycott Israel," according to a New York Times column.

However, the support-Israel-no-matter-what lobby still wields considerable power.

"America's mainstream institutions have gone to extraordinary lengths to obscure (Palestinian) oppression," Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine. "Few (if any) forms of political expression are more aggressively suppressed in the US than anti-Zionist dissent. Seventeen US states have passed laws that penalise businesses and individuals who endorse boycotts of Israeli settlements. Academics are routinely fired for pointed criticisms of Israeli violence. And the State Department's official definition of anti-Semitism suggests that calling Israel—which is, at present, a de facto apartheid state—a 'racist endeavour' is tantamount to hatred of Jews."

Take the case of Emily Wilder, a Stanford University graduate who recently joined the Associated Press. Stanford's student Republicans created a stink about the fact that in her student days Wilder was associated with Justice for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Boom. AP fired Wilder.

So, there is still some ways to go, but what is heartening is that more and more people are saying it's time to stop giving Israel a blank check.

"If you oppose war crimes only by your enemies, it's not clear that you actually oppose war crimes," Nicholas Kristof wrote in his New York Times column entitled "The 'Unshakable' Bonds of Friendship with Israel Are Shaking."


Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.



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